Full Reviews of "Reflections" by Elizabeth Maconchy and Nicola LeFanu


Maconchy awaits a true re-assessment and as yet we lack a full understanding of her style and achievement. Nevertheless putting all of these pieces together, especially with the help of this new CD and its exquisite performances, certain conclusions and ideas emerge.

Elizabeth Maconchy is basically a diatonic composer. Her language can be intensely chromatic and sometimes it is modal. That said, she was never part of what was disparagingly termed ‘the cowpat school’. She also had the ability to make a long piece out of sometimes unpromising material. In many works practically every bar can be traced back to the first bars. You can hear this, for example, in the Third Quartet of 1938 where a bar of 4/4 time followed by a 5/8 pervades the entire one movement work. She creates power out of often grinding dissonances as at the climax point in the Nocturne of 1951. She also writes logical and continuous counterpoint. The opening ideas in the Overture Proud Thames recorded by Lyrita do exactly that. If this sounds a little cerebral, and it certainly is not, it seems to me that she later also became increasingly interested in colour. This is demonstrated on this new CD in the piece Reflections for viola, clarinet, oboe and harp. What a delicious combination this is. Used with such delicacy and subtlety it refracts light like the last vestiges of the winter sun.

She once said ‘I believe we should be passionately intellectual and intellectually passionate" a statement which sums up all of the above comments.

Nicola Lefanu is basically an atonal composer: one who uses, if she wishes, a tone row, or quarter tones or alleotoric techniques. It is also interesting to note something she said about her own Second Quartet which applies to the pieces recorded here. She wrote in the Naxos CD booklet mentioned above: "The musical thought is carried forward in a succession of images, contrasting but organically related". In this we are not a million miles away from her mother’s own compositional approach. Listen to Lefanu’s Lament which bravely opens the CD with its deliberately dark instrumental colouring. It begins with a keening descending slide through the quarter-tones. The piece then proceeds solemnly until a minute or so from the end when some kind of spiritual reconciliation is achieved; a quasi-plainsong idea, quite modal and quiet, ends the piece philosophically.

You can hear the two composers neatly adjacent with the two pieces for solo instruments. Although Lefanu’s Soliloquy for solo oboe, a piece she wrote whilst still at school, is five times longer than her mother’s Miniature it does not pack any more of a punch. Interestingly, it was written no less than 22 years before what transpired to be her mother’s last work.

The solo harp work by Maconchy Morning, Noon and Night was written for the Aldeburgh Festival of 1977 and has a touch of Britten about it. The harp is notoriously difficult to write for, as I know to my own cost. Of course it is a diatonic instrument but Maconchy mixes chromatisisms carefully with an individual form of modality to produce an original and slightly acerbic sound-world of great beauty. The first movement is a very good example of how she beavers away at a single idea but producing a surprising ending from ‘up her sleeve’. Both women write well for voices but Nicola Lefanu more so for the solo voice - Mira Clas Tenebras. This piece uses varied texts from the middle ages and earlier to create a nocturnal world contesting darkness and dawn. The same fleeting and fragile sound-world I remember from The Same Day Dawns, a piece with a similar theme, is present here. The texts are divided by brief instrumental commentaries – one for viola, one for harp, and one even for oboe d’amore. All quite fascinating.

I could go on, but instead I can only advise that you hunt the CD out. Some of the sounds on it will haunt you hours after you have returned it to its case.


There is something to be said for planning the content of records around composers who were members of the same family, for the juxtaposition can be more than merely interesting. This is especially true when the music is not, for whatever reasons, often encountered, but a danger is that not all members of the family might be equally gifted and the lesser figures get their music on the disc for non-artistic reasons. I welcome a new CD on the Metier label of music by Elizabeth Maconchy and her daughter Nicola Lefanu, for mother and daughter are equally significant figures in British music and yet inhabit very different artistic milieux. The music of Lefanu is considerably more ‘modern’ than that of her mother, yet all of this music is eminently worthwhile. The album is called ‘Reflections’ – the title of a piece from 1960 by Maconchy – and there are seven other works here, three by mother and four by daughter. They range from a tiny Miniature for solo oboe by Maconchy to a chamber cantata by Lefanu lasting just under 25 minutes, but including Maconchy’s Morning, Noon and Night (effectively a large-scale sonata for solo harp) and two songs by Lefanu, A Travelling Spirit, lasting five minutes overall and scored for voice and recorder. These very varied works are performed by the eight musicians who make up Okeanos, a recently formed new music group. Mother and daughter are very well served by them, and the recordings are excellent. Texts (with translations) are included and the notes are by Lefanu. There is a lovely picture of her standing in front of a portrait of her mother, who died in 1994 aged 87 (her centenary falls next year). Lefanu is married to composer David Lumsdaine, whose Variations for Orchestra (premiered at the Royal Festival Hall at an SPNM concert about 46 years ago) certainly deserves revival.


On a recent release on the Metier label, featuring chamber works by Lefanu and Elizabeth Maconchy, the most substantial work on the programme is Lefanu’s Mira Clas Tenebras, a 20-minute Nocturne for mezzo, viola, cor anglais/oboe d’amore and harp which consists of songs of darkness, sleep, dreams and dawn. Night is a key source of inspiration for the composer, featuring in the titles of many of her recent works. In the case of Mira Clas Tenebras, eloquent solos for the instrumentalists are sprinkled throughout the piece like nightlights, illuminating the expressive vocal line. The use of quarter-tones adds an appropriately exotic flavour. Three bell-like chords on the harp act as an idée fixe, perhaps representing the dawn, appearing at the end of the second and sixth songs and initiate the intricate harp solo’s shadowy introduction to the concluding song, ‘Tenebras’. Other Lefanu works featured in this well-filled disc include her fluent Soliloquy (1965) for solo oboe, persuasively interpreted by Jinny Shaw; A Travelling Spirit, turning the unusual but satisfying combination of soprano and recorder to expressive account; and the moving Lament (1988) for oboe, clarinet, viola and cello. The work was not written ‘in memoriam’, but was inspired by two simultaneous anniversaries: the 70th birthday of Nelson Mandela, then still imprisoned, and the bicentenary of Australia, bringing with it reflections on the beginning of the end of Aboriginal population with the arrival of the English in 1788. Hence, there is a lingering, deep melancholy about the work, which does not achieve any catharsis but uses its dark instrumentation and frequent dying falls to reflect an inconsolable lamentation.

A small selection of her chamber work on the new Metier disc provides a timely reminder of Maconchy’s particular skills in the field of intimate music-making. Reflections (1960) for viola, clarinet, oboe and harp finds the composer at her most relaxed and good-humoured. The opening material, fertile enough to engender and sustain the material of the ensuing four-movement work, is both memorable and mysterious. The atmospheric Lento is a reminder of how easily she is able to conjure up entire worlds in a matter of minutes and one of the many pleasures throughout this immensely attractive work is the superbly idiomatic, inventive writing for each instrument. Morning, Noon and Night (1976) is a tour de force for solo harp, Maconchy sometimes making the instrument sound like an entire ensemble, such is the brilliance of the writing. Yet, the listener is never aware of any self-conscious cleverness; the composer’s craft is always firmly at the service of the music. ‘Miniature’ (1987) for solo oboe is a sparkling masterpiece: one of the last things she wrote, it finds genuine eloquence in a tiny fragment. Okeanos approach these scores with imagination and wit rooted in a firm and secure technique.